Confucian education ideals, RIP

By Herbert Hanreich  / 

Sat, Sep 28, 2013 - Page 8

Each year, Chinese cultures celebrate Sept. 28 as Teachers’ Day in honor of Confucius because that was his birthday. Confucian ideas remain, as it has been put in a famous encyclopedia, “the substance of learning, the source of values and the social code of the Chinese.” His name stands for a whole culture.

Taiwan also celebrates Teachers’ Day. A variety of activities take place across the nation on that day in most of the Confucian temples. Confucius, also called “the first and model teacher,” is considered a spiritual founding father of the Chinese cultural edifice, serving as a symbol of what Confucian cultures are proud of: good and life-long education. This is important not only as a preparation for the workforce, but also as an ideal way to cultivate morality.

Education is an essential ingredient of Chinese culture. Throughout most of China’s long history, education had been a prerequisite for career advancement within imperial administrations. Until not too long ago, careers in European administrations depended on one’s affiliation to certain social classes, which were born into, rather than on education.

A complex testing system had been gradually devised, obliging candidates to pass scores of exams. Most of the tests were unrelated to the needs of the professional world, but, in order to advance, those exams had to be passed.

This situation has not changed in Taiwan. There is a growing discrepancy between academic education and professional requirements, which has something to do with the adoption of Confucian thought. Here are five factors, elements of the education system, that help explain the situation:

First, each year, scores of freshmen students are ushered into the classrooms of the many local college and university departments even though they do not really want to be there. They often take on a subject because they were instructed to by their family; as if the family council issued a decree based on its budget and the future. The student, bound by filial piety, humbly gives in. It is not surprising that students do not succeed in the job market and later switch careers when they did not choose their profession.

Second, university entrance exam results restrict students’ options, forcing them to choose subjects in which they often have no real interest. Their achievements in these subjects are accordingly below par. The result of the mismatch between students and their study is that after graduation, many of them do not continue with subjects they do not feel comfortable with; they seek work in entirely different fields.

Investment in higher education in both cases is a waste of time, money and human resources. Many students who would be very successful if they were allowed to study according to their interests do not get the chance because they cannot pass entrance exams.

A third factor is that much teaching, from kindergarten to graduate schools, is pure exegesis of the textbook rather than an exploration of cutting-edge knowledge to be found in the latest books or in top journals. Only a few teachers connect teaching with current research.

Knowledge changes quickly. Studying the processes of, and reasons for, such changes can be a fascinating experience that gives one a better sense of what knowledge, understanding and rational argumentation really means. A sound education must include the enhancement of students’ interests and abilities so that they will gain knowledge from outside sources by themselves. This would help reduce the unavoidable gap between theory and application.

Pure textbook teaching, which seems to be the prevailing teaching method in this nation, was inherited from the distant past, but is a perfect study-killer. It focuses on memorization, but not on the process of generating new content. The textbook situation can be put into a modified syllogism with two premises and two conclusions: Most students hate textbooks. However, most students must study according to textbooks. Therefore, most students do not like what and how they study and, therefore, most students will find what they study irrelevant. Education in this situation is more of a farce than an intellectual enterprise.

Fourth, recently established teacher evaluation mechanisms at universities, which include input from students, put teachers under pressure. This often means that keeping students happy, instead of challenging them, has become teachers’ main educational priority. What they expect from the students in turn is to likewise “please” teachers by “rewarding” them with high grades — a despicable game too often played in Taiwan. In the animal kingdom such an attitude is called reciprocal altruism; in human democracies it is called corruption. University policies try to elicit “excellent” teachers, but all they do is provide an environment that encourages corruption.

Fifth, local businesses and administrations are creating jobs that make few intellectual demands, but nevertheless require a university diploma. Therefore, an increasing number of young people who are unsuited for academic tasks are forced into colleges and universities. There seems to be infinite trust in a piece of paper with an official stamp, but not in the students.

Many of the students who perform poorly in academic circles would probably be much more successful in the acquisition of practical skills for jobs for which common sense is far more useful than the academic virtues of abstract and critical thinking. Does Taiwan not have enough good vocational schools which offer sound educational programs and enhance practical skills?

The nation’s education system is in a poor state, despite contrary claims. It is so because local education ideals are either based on traditional, backward looking cultural traits or they have been infiltrated by business interests, which are gradually killing ideals here and around the world.

There is little reason to celebrate Teachers’ Day; maybe it should commemorate that there once was a great ideal called education that now rests in peace.

Herbert Hanreich is an assistant professor at I-Shou University in Greater Kaohsiung.